Monday, July 8, 2019

The summer of '69, fifty years ago.

You can hardly spit these days without hitting something pertaining to 1969, that year 50 years ago when humans landed on the moon, and even more improbably, the Amazin' Mets won the World Serious against the vaunted Baltimore Orioles, four games to one.

We still watched the Series on black and white sets in those days, and they still played afternoon games, the time baseball should be played and was played before every square inch and every single moment turned into an advertising vehicle.

I was just 11 that summer so long ago, when Vietnam was raging, four students at Kent State were still alive and the evil, deranged and pathological Richard Nixon was president and his penny-ante Vice President Spiro Agnew was content with kick-backs in the six-figure range, not the ten-figure range which is de rigueur among Trumpian Kleptocrats.

(These days, I miss Richard Nixon.)

I was in summer camp in the woods of New Hampshire that summer and we gathered around a small, plastic portable Emerson TV with tin-foil on its rabbit ears as the Lunar Excursion Module landed on the moon. Neil Armstrong walked out and amid the static, it seemed America could do anything, and was indeed the best country in the world.

My counselor and baseball coach that summer was a Californian called Nelson Chase. Chase was a Burt Lancaster look-alike with biceps the size of cantaloupes. He could hit a ball into the woods that ringed the outfield of our ballpark, 400 feet away and we'd go running after it, hoping for a touch of his greatness. 

He was probably 18 or 19 that summer, just seven or eight years older than I, but he was big and strong and a man while I was just a little boy. Today, we'd be age peers. Back then, Chase seemed a generation older.

I played on a junior team that summer and didn't do much playing at all. There were 12 and 13 year-olds ensconced at each position, and I was relegated to the bench and more than a little sullen about my subordinate status. I have been specializing in sullen for over 50 years now and have gotten more than a little expert at the art.

One day, I ran back to the cabin I was living in with nine or 10 other boys and I saw Chase there all alone. I went about my business, maybe I need my baseball glove, or a towel so I could jump in the lake with my friends, or something, but before long, I noticed that Chase was sitting on his well-made cot and crying.

The crying wasn't a crying you could suppress, even if you wanted to. It was a shoulder-heaving, head-shaking, body-shivering cry. The kind of cry you cry maybe a total of ten times in your life, when your sister dies, or your dog, or when someone you love stops talking to you for what seems like forever.

As much as I wanted to sneak out of the cabin and run in the sunshine to avoid the whole thing, I went over to Chase.

"What's happened," I asked. Afraid to speak at full volume.

He stared at me long and hard before speaking. It seemed like half-an-hour. It was probably half-a-minute. "I just got a phone call. My best friend was killed in Vietnam. We grew up together. And he's dead now."

Chase got up and walked out of the cabin. I followed him at a short distance deep into the lonely woods that surrounded the summer camp. My short legs could barely keep up with his long ones.

A mile or so into the woods, after maybe 20 minutes of walking, he sat on an old fallen tree and buried his head in his big, sun-tanned hands and cried. I stood watching with almost the same awe that I watched American men land on the moon. 

I knew something big had happened.

I don't know how long I was in the woods with Nelson Chase. I do remember that after a time he stood up from his seat, dried his face with his tee shirt, blew his nose into a pocket handkerchief and we walked back to the cabin slowly climbing over stumps of trees, exposed roots and protruding rocks. We never talked about what happened. How could we?

Of all the momentous events of that summer fifty years ago when I was just 11, seeing Nelson Chase cry is the one I've always carried with me. And never spoke about. How could I?

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